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Escambia Teachers, Students Finding 'Rhythm' With Virtual Learning

Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media

After nearly a month of virtual learning due to the coronavirus, Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas has had a chance to see the successes and challenges of educating the district's 40,000 students outside the classroom. 

“Well, I think it’s gone as well as you could expect; we’re seeing progress each week,” said Thomas in regards to his assessment of the distance learning taking place throughout the district.

“It is a different way of work, and for some students, online is easier and for some student online is more difficult,” explained Thomas. “So, we expect the teachers to be flexible and try to work through all the issues that would come up. But, with each day that passes, the teachers and the students seem to be getting in a rhythm.”

It has helped that student attendance has hovered around 95%, which Thomas calls a good number.

Additionally, the district has had few issues with students’ technology and connectivity needs.

The superintendent says Escambia was in a good position for delivering remote education thanks to steps taken about five years ago.

“We had a project called “Vision 2020” to make sure all of our students would be issued a “one to one” device. We chose Chromebooks,” Thomas said. He added, “Our teachers were already using tools like Canvas and Google Classroom in their classroom, so it was a little easier to make the transition. Had we not had one-to-one (1:1) devices, I think this would have been a catastrophe.”

While there have been many successes, Thomas says virtual learning has been a challenge for some students and their families.

“We’re certainly empathetic for families where there are multiple children and then mom and dad might have also been trying to work remotely from home. Scheduling and making all the work and keeping it on track, it is a challenge.”

The district has tried to help by maintaining as much compassion and flexibility as possible, considering the difficulty of many students to stay logged on and on-task for instruction on a regular daytime schedule. 

“Some teachers are offering it at varied hours, so that students can come and go at a schedule that works for them,” Thomas. “And, I do see that that quantity of work has been a big adjustment that teachers have had to make, and most of them have turned the corner on that.”

Given that the district has worked out most of the kinks, Thomas said it makes sense to continue remote learning through the end of the school year, as ordered by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Additionally, he points to the many logistical issues of trying to bring the schools back on line for the 15 days that would remain on the district’s calendar had they reopened on May 1.

“For example, things that people don’t think about. In our community feeding, we have emptied all of the perishable, frozen items out of our cafeterias.  So, if we were to re-start schools, we’d have to order and restock all the cafeterias, so we could feed those 30,000-35,000 breakfast and lunch meals each day in a school verses non-perishable products we’re distributing in our feeding sites.”

The superintendent also expressed concern that some parents wouldn’t be ready to send their children back to school in the current environment and that hesitancy on the part of teachers and staff would leave him short of the workforce needed to manage the students in school.

As Thomas looks to close out the 2019-2020 school year, under the cloud of coronavirus, he plans to allow students to keep their Chromebooks, in hopes of offsetting some of the typical summer regression.

And, as the school-year wraps up, the focus is increasingly on graduation ceremonies for Escambia County’s senior class.

“We think there are a lot of options we could use,” Thomas explained.

“We’d love to have face to face. We’d love to have some of the parents and grandparents in the room, so they can enjoy the moment with the student. I guess if it came down to it, we could distance our students and march them across the stage. We stream graduation anyway.”

Thomas said no decisions will be made until the district receives guidance from health officials to determine if, when, and how ceremonies might be held.

In the meantime, the Pensacola Bay Center has been reserved for dates in May, June, and July, which is the latest opportunity before the graduates head off to college.

Next time, Santa Rosa Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick shares his report card on distance learning.